AUTHOR INTERVIEW 89 – Alan James Hesse

Alan James Hesse

Ecuador

Age 51

Based in biodiversity-rich Ecuador, Alan wears several hats: he is an author-illustrator, an educator, and a conservation biologist. Alan’s work is inspired by the majesty and fragility of nature and the need to do everything we can to protect it.  
Alan combines his artistic creativity with his technical experience and knowledge to create scientifically accurate, educational children’s books full of quirky, comic humor and fun action, and usually bearing a message about how everyone can help preserve Nature.

Alan draws the artwork in his comic or picture books by hand and then edits it all digitally. 
He is the author of five educational comic books for middle-grade children, among which his main ongoing focus is the Captain Polo series about climate change. 

Alan is also the author of 3 climate change-themed picture books for children within the 6-8 age range.
Setting out to find food in a melting Arctic landscape, Captain Polo finds himself back on the ocean waves in his trusty sailing boat, falling into one crazy adventure after another. Except for this time, he is sailing on the secret agenda of a hidden stowaway! 
Book 4 of this series of climate change books for kids takes Captain Polo on another rollicking, funny global journey that uncovers ever more important aspects of global warming, and importantly, also the many ways we can all become part of the solution.

Romelia: WHAT IS A SIGNIFICANT WAY YOUR BOOK HAS CHANGED SINCE THE FIRST DRAFT?

Alan J. Hesse: I sent out an Advanced Reader Copy to trusted editors and some of them forced me to reconsider certain elements of my book. I am facing the decision right now as to which changes to make and which to ignore. Some of the changes I am making are to do with reducing stereotypes in my characters’ speech, actions, or appearance. I get why this is advisable but at the same time, I am being careful to not let these suggestions kill my style. As an author/illustrator of comic books that use humor, I depend quite a lot on stereotypes and satire. So it’s difficult for me to let go of these elements sometimes. However, I guess the most obvious change in my book, a comic, since the first draft is that most of it are now in full color, as opposed to black and white.

Romelia: WHAT PERSPECTIVES OR BELIEFS HAVE YOU CHALLENGED WITH THIS WORK?

Alan J. Hesse: Probably the denial and general apathy towards human-induced climate change and ecosystem collapse. These are aspects of human behavior that are literally destroying the delicate fabric of ecological balance that holds our world together as we know it. My book doesn’t get too political but it does challenge the ignorance and willful exacerbation of issues such as global warming and environmental degradation.  

Romelia: WHAT INSPIRED THE IDEA FOR YOUR BOOK?

Alan J. Hesse: My entire Captain Polo series is all about climate change and the natural environment, and how the degradation of the latter is linked to human hardship all over the world. The idea to focus on climate change originally came from the publisher I was using when I was thinking of my next book, about 4 years ago, and I was inspired to go with that because at the time I was just coming into increasing contact with professional situations, as a conservation biologist, which required a certain basic understanding of what global warming and climate change mean. I found it all very confusing, and at that time (around 2015-16) these were not buzz words or subjects in the mainstream media like they are today. This inspired me to take up my publisher’s suggestion and create a comic book about it, so that I would learn and help others learn too, in a novel and fun way.

Romelia: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BOOK’S IDEAL READER?

Alan J. Hesse: My book’s ideal reader is a child of around 12 years old, either boy or girl, who is curious and also slightly confused and worried about what they see and hear all the time on TV and social media regarding the natural environment and how it seems to all be coming to pieces. My ideal reader loves animals, wildlife, and nature, they love a visit to the zoo or safari park, and they are also into books that tell a good story, especially comics and graphic novels. They love reading about adventure, especially if it happens in exotic locations around the world. They like the books they read to have action and humor. They have read all their parents’ Tintin and Asterix books, or if they’ve never heard of these, they own the DVD of the Tintin animation movie and have watched it 5 times.

Romelia: HOW MUCH RESEARCH DID YOU NEED TO DO FOR YOUR BOOK?

Alan J. Hesse: All my books involve a great deal of research and this one, Book 4 in the series, was no exception. My research consisted of several steps, including desktop research using the internet, reading scientific articles online, and downloading photos of locations and type characters. I also interviewed three or four climate change professionals, each an expert in a different aspect of the subject or its reality in specific parts of the world that I aimed to target in my book. These interviews provided me with valuable insight and nuance that I was able to build into my plot, dialogues, and characters.

Romelia: HOW IMPORTANT WAS PROFESSIONAL EDITING TO YOUR BOOK’S DEVELOPMENT?

Alan J. Hesse: Not important at all outside of the fact that I sent an advanced reader copy to the above mentioned technical experts as well as to a friend who is a professional book editor for Oxford University Press.

Romelia: WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST SCENE TO WRITE, AND WHY?

Alan J. Hesse: The hardest scenes to write were the ones where my main character, Captain Polo, makes landfall in Senegal and gets to meet local climate activists and has a TV interview. The technical content for this whole sequence, which lasts several pages, had to try to encompass a long list of facts and aspects of global warming that affect West Africa and Senegal in particular, and it was hard to fit it all incoherently. Remember that, being a comic, I need to get all that technical content in my dialogues, which have to be inside little speech bubbles, of which there can’t be too many in any given frame. I also had a hard time drawing some of the local characters, bearing in mind that I am often challenged by being too stereotypical! The street scenes of the coastal town I chose as my setting for this passage were also a challenge to draw accurately, and I had to rely heavily on photos I downloaded.

Romelia: WHAT CHARACTERS IN YOUR BOOK ARE MOST SIMILAR TO YOU OR TO PEOPLE YOU KNOW?

Alan J. Hesse: One of my characters is Conor, a feisty, red-headed, and bearded Irish fishing captain who has a personal grudge against my main character, Captain Polo the bear. Conor is a caricature of one of my friends who I used to work alongside a long time ago in a small bird conservation organization in Bolivia. My friend is brilliant but also has a short temper and is not particularly tactful, and I based Conor on this personality. Conor is also inspired by Looney Tunes character Samity Sam.

Romelia: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK?

Alan J. Hesse: Because I do the research, write the texts, draw the artwork and then put it all together myself, it takes a long time, sometimes more than a year. I wrote and drew this particular book in about 6 months to the black and white stage. The longest part is what comes next, which is the graphic editing and coloring, which I started 7 months ago and am still working on, expecting to finish soon. Overall it’s been a year since I started.

Romelia: HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE TITLE FOR YOUR BOOK?

Alan J. Hesse: This is a story about a journey from the north to the south poles, so I called it Pole to Pole. However, I decided to end the book with an open ending leading to the planned sequel, and only in that sequel will my character actually get to the south Pole. My professional editor friend reassured me that it’s Ok to do that, so I hope he’s right!

Romelia: WOULD YOU AND YOUR MAIN CHARACTER GET ALONG?

Alan J. Hesse: Absolutely. Captain Polo is a bear on a mission. His Arctic home is melting and he’s having trouble hunting and functioning properly in a disappearing habitat. His mission is to do what he can to get humans on board to save the Arctic and also the world as we know it. He has special gifts that help him do this – he walks bipedally, he talks, sails a boat, uses cash, and knows a lot about the world, its peoples, and climate change, including the solutions that are just waiting to be rolled out with the right mindset and willingness.

Romelia: IF YOU COULD MEET YOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?

Alan J. Hesse: I’d tell Captain Polo I’m proud of him and tell him not to give up. I’d tell his sidekick, Penguin, to support Polo as best he can and always be his friend and stop playing pranks on him. I’d tell the bumbling villain Conor to back off and forget his obsession for getting his cap back from Polo: the cap blew off in a gale at sea and Polo happened to find it and keep it (this all happened in Book 1): Conor, get over it! He needs that cap more than you do – he’s a global messenger and ambassador for climate change, which is more than you are doing! And to the arch-villain Tex Greedyman, the world’s biggest oilman and exploiter of fossil fuels, I’d say change your ways, because at the end of the day you can’t eat your money and you can’t drink your oil!

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE? ARE YOU MORE OF A PLOTTER OR A PANTSER?

Alan J. Hesse: I am a plotter extraordinaire. I am the King of all Plotters. It takes me weeks to do my research, then I plan it all out: what the plot will be, what characters will there be, how the non-fiction will blend with the fiction to make a compelling, funny, exciting yet also educational story. I have to plot how each frame will look, which character speaks first (so I know where the speech bubbles will go in order to take that into account when I do the artwork), how big they need to be, and in what order they need to be read. I would prefer to be a pantser, that’s how I do my cooking and most other things in life, but not for my books. I have learned the hard way that not planning my comic only leads to wasted time and effort.

Romelia: WHAT DO YOU NEED IN YOUR WRITING SPACE TO HELP YOU STAY FOCUSED?

Alan J. Hesse: Not much. Mostly quiet. I have two dogs and we live in a small condo where there are many other families with dogs. My dogs go crazy every time they see another dog out the window, and that really bothers me. I need my writing space to be clean and uncluttered. At 10:30 am I get a coffee, that’s it. Just the one coffee for the day, sometimes with cardamom seeds in it.

Romelia: IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A SPIN-OFF ABOUT A SIDE CHARACTER, WHICH WOULD YOU PICK?

Alan J. Hesse: Probably Polo’s sidekick Penguin. Penguin is a badass who gets his way. He doesn’t speak like Polo does, but he’s clever and resourceful. He is inspired by the penguin gangsters in that animated film with plasticine characters, Wallace and Gromitt. Penguin is also inspired by Wile E. Coyote in Loony Tunes, in that he has an unending arsenal at his disposal that he can pull out of thin air, thereby challenging the laws of physics and reality itself.

Romelia: IF YOU COULD SPEND A DAY WITH ANOTHER POPULAR AUTHOR, WHOM WOULD YOU CHOOSE?

Alan J. Hesse: Ideally I would have chosen Goscinny or Uderzo, authors of the legendary Asterix comics, but both are no longer alive. That being the case, I think I would learn a lot from Dav Pilkey, author of the popular Captain Underpants and Dog Man comics. I wouldn’t be so interested in his technique, which is very different from mine, but rather in how he manages to be so successful selling his books!

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR SCHEDULE LIKE WHEN YOU’RE WRITING A BOOK?

Alan J. Hesse: When I am in the creative process of actually writing the story or drawing it, I like to spend my mornings on this, with no interruptions. Later when I am at the editing and coloring phase (I use Photoshop), I prefer to do other things in the mornings and use the afternoons for continuing to work on my book.

Romelia: HAVE YOU EVER TRAVELED AS RESEARCH FOR YOUR BOOK?

Alan J. Hesse: Yes, but not for the climate change books. I did travel to research an earlier book called Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection, a complete non-fiction graphic novel about Darwin and his visit to the Galápagos Islands and what happened after. I was lucky enough to have been commissioned to create this comic by the Darwin Foundation located on the islands themselves, and I was able to go and live there for 4 months. During that time I researched the Darwin comic (as well as 3 other smaller comics which I also completed on-site) thoroughly, using the Foundation’s library, reading scientific papers about evolution, a Darwin biography (in French, funnily enough), and consulting with in-house resident experts and researchers, several of whom were kind enough to vet my final draft. My research even included getting a great deal on a small cruise of some of the islands Darwin actually visited in 1835 aboard the famous Beagle….and my sailing boat for the cruise was also called the Beagle! This enabled me to take photos of the actual landing places Darwin used, practically unchanged (it’s a national park) since his time. Every single scene in that book is authentic to a tee, even the dialogues, and monologues, which I got from scientific manuscripts in the library.

Romelia: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WRITING SNACK OR DRINK?

Alan J. Hesse: I don’t normally snack when writing, but at 10:30 every day I make myself a good strong little pot of Ecuadorian coffee.

Romelia: HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE WHEN YOU FINISH YOUR BOOK?

Alan J. Hesse: I used to celebrate when finishing a book until I discovered that the hardest part was yet to come: marketing! Nowadays I don’t bother celebrating, I go straight to promo and marketing, and I start planning my next book. When I have achieved key milestones for the success I think I deserve for my books, then I’ll celebrate, probably by opening a bottle of champagne.

Romelia: WHAT RISKS HAVE YOU TAKEN WITH YOUR WRITING THAT HAVE PAID OFF?

Alan J. Hesse: I took a risk when I decided to quit my full-time job in conservation to finish my original climate change comic book. This has paid off in the sense that I have significantly developed this second career as an author to the point where I know what I’m doing most of the time, have built a growing social media presence, a good website, and have created more books. Now what I need is people to see and buy those books, or at least give me a review!

Romelia: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU GOOGLED YOURSELF AND WHAT DID YOU FIND?

Alan J. Hesse: I did just now, for the first time in months if not years. I cover 100% of the first search page, mostly with links to other interviews like this one as well as my web page, my books, social media profiles, and also other links regarding my work as a conservationist.

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR KRYPTONITE AS A WRITER?

Alan J. Hesse: The desire to create a truly unique graphic story that is really funny as well as educational. So in short, a sense of humor.

Romelia: TELL US SOMETHING FUNNY FROM YOUR ADULT LIFE.

Alan J. Hesse: I once won an award at a work retreat for being a good actor. We had these annual global retreats that were hard work but also a lot of fun, and in the evenings there were activities like a talent show. This was a lot of fun and with my team we improvised a sketch involving a character something like King Louis XVI, played by me. I improvised a powdered white face (using a colleagues’ foot powder – a mistake!) and a wig, as well as laced shoes (using bits of paper) and a large belly (stuffing clothes down my shirt), and did a good job that had everyone laughing out loud. My team won the talent show and I got a special spoof award consisting of a paper plate with ‘Best Chance of Acting on Broadway’ written on it. In the same organization, I would often dress up and do sketches for our class of adult students, just to make it all more fun.

Romelia: describe yourself in a few sentences. Tell us something we do not know about you and something you hate about the world.

Alan J. Hesse: I consider myself a world citizen, being half French and half British from my parents, born in Pakistan, and having been a resident in Bulgaria, Syria, Oman, Italy, India, France, Britain, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia and now Ecuador. I am passionate about the natural world, wildlife, beautiful landscapes, and wilderness, to the point where I consider it my life’s purpose to do all I can to protect Nature and inspire others to do the same. I have a keen sense of humor and I play acoustic guitar for fun. I am a good cook, and I love eating, drinking wine, and socializing with friends or people I’ve just met who are original and have something to say. I love to read, especially historical fiction or non-fiction, but I have a short attention span. I am married and a stepfather to two teenage boys.

One thing I hate about the world is the fact that people exist who are unable or unwilling to see past their established beliefs and perceptions.

http://mybook.to/CaptainPoloBook4

alan.hesse@gmail.com

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